LE MANS, France -- In the early hours of Sunday morning, Fernando Alonso grabbed the No. 8 Toyota by the scruff of the neck and wrestled it back into contention for the Le Mans 24 Hours.
When Alonso clambered into the car at 1:30 a.m., fate appeared to be turning against the Spaniard and his teammates. Just over two and a half hours later, those of us still awake inside the sleepy Le Mans media centre were convinced we had just seen a pivotal moment in the race. At 3 p.m. later that day, the momentum he had started in those early hours culminated with the No.8 car rolling across the line as Toyota's first-ever winner of the event.
Some cynics had suggested Toyota would stage-manage the race in order for the No. 8 and Alonso to win, but this did not seem fair on a team with such a tortured history at this circuit. While many in the team might have secretly hoped Alonso's car was the one which took the chequered flag, mindful of the huge PR bonus to come with it, history had been too unkind to Toyota for it to play any games at Le Mans -- 18 unsuccessful attempts had come and gone before this weekend.
Heart-breaking failure after heart-breaking failure is etched into the team's psyche. With a Japanese driver in either car to complete the most perfect of headlines back home, it didn't seem to matter which one of them made the line first -- only that one of them did.
It was a race between Toyota's two cars -- the No. 8 Alonso shared with Kazuki Nakajima and Sebastien Buemi, and the No. 7 entry, spearheaded by Kamui Kobayashi and two drivers to have never made it to F1, Mike Conway and Jose Maria Lopez. Until an issue for the No. 7 in the final 90 minutes, they had remained on the same lap throughout. However the conspiracy theorists want to carve up the race in analysis is up to them, but by the end even the most ardent sports car purists were admitting -- some of them begrudgingly, it seemed -- that what Alonso had done in those early hours of Sunday had been something special.
Alonso's eyes had told the whole story before his first stint at 5.30 p.m. on Saturday. The wide-eyed stare caught by TV cameras ahead of his first stint suggested the sense of occasion had finally dawned on him -- he looked nervous.
That opening stint provided a heart-stopping reminder that Alonso is a rookie at endurance racing. At a Safety Car restart, while chasing race leader Lopez through a huge train of traffic from the lower classes of cars which all compete together at Le Mans, Alonso dipped his wheels onto the grass on the Mulsanne Straight to pass a line of three cars and, for a moment, it looked like he would end up in the wall.
When he had handed the No. 8 car over to Nakajima for the first time, it was marginally in the lead as the Toyota's ran close together. By the time he lined up in the garage to take his place in the cockpit some six hours later the race looked like it might just be about to slip away. A furious Buemi had received a 60-second stop-go for speeding through a 'yellow zone' -- one even more costly given the slow drive in and out of the pits. When Alonso took the place of the Swiss driver for the second of three schedule switchovers shortly afterwards, the No. 8 was well over two minutes behind the sister Toyota.
To begin with it seemed like Lopez was simply hitting traffic at inopportune moments, such was the gap in lap times between the two cars. But Alonso's pace was remarkable, and he spent most of the stint consistently lapping in the 3:19, 3:20 range -- which was usually anywhere between three and five seconds quicker than Lopez out in front. He wasn't cutting the lead, he was slashing it, harrying the No. 8 car through the night like a man possessed, determined to remind the world he is one of the greatest of the modern era.
We have come to expect such stints from Alonso in F1, albeit more recently in machinery capable of finishing seventh or eighth on a good day. But what made the unrelenting consistency of this stint all the more impressive was that it took place in the middle of the night, on a circuit he has very limited experience on and was shared with upwards of 60 other cars -- all of varying speeds and driver abilities. Speaking to ESPN ahead of the race, fellow Le Mans rookie Jenson Button said some of the night-time driving of the circuit had to be done on instinct, such was the lack of visibility in some areas of the famous Circuit de la Sarthe at the darkest moments. Of his three stints, the one in the darkness of night was supposed to be Alonso's most difficult, the one where the F1 legend would be exposed.
The Spaniard seemed to be loving every second of it. Towards his final stop, and the planned switchover to Nakajima, he opened his radio channel to deliver a memorable radio message: "Tell me if you want another stint. I've got into the rhythm of the night!"
Toyota opted against it, playing it safe, sticking to schedule and swapping Alonso with Nakajima as planned. Alonso had done enough. When he came in, the gap was down to 40 seconds, and the threat of dropping off the lead lap had diminished. The former Williams driver -- who was sublime throughout the weekend -- would continue Alonso's good work in the hours leading up to sunrise and later captured a lead the car would not relinquish.
It was clear how much Alonso had enjoyed himself. Asked immediately afterwards by Radio Le Mans if he had been asking for longer in the car, he said: "Yes, I wanted to stay until about 2 o'clock tomorrow!
"I felt strong, I felt into the zone, got into it with traffic. It seems when you get lucky with overtakes, you get more lucky with the next ones, and the opposite when you get in unlucky, you get in a loop."
His third and final stint was more disjointed, a mix of Safety Car periods and 'slow zones' -- similar to F1's Virtual Safety Car -- but when he finished the No. 8's lead was at the 1:14 mark. Late trouble would hit the No. 7 car, which in turn led to a slew of penalties, leading to a very comfortable finish, but the job Alonso had done over the 24 hours could not be understated.
In truth, this was probably the best chance Alonso would ever have to win the race. The withdrawral of Porsche from LMP1 -- the World Endurance Championship's premier class of car -- left Toyota as the overwhelming favourite for victories throughout the series' 'Super Season', which runs through to next year's event at Le Mans.
But what he did overnight left no doubt he had earned this most special of race victories. For all of his glaring faults -- the bad career moves, the politicking which has so badly damaged his prospects of adding to the two world championships he won a lifetime ago -- the middle stint was vintage Alonso, a reminder that the Spaniard deserves to be in any conversation about who is the greatest to ever pull on a helmet and climb in a race car.
He only has himself to blame for the fact he's spending the golden years of his career pursuing the Triple Crown and not a bounty of Formula One records. Whatever he does, he will go down as one of the unfulfilled talents in F1's long and illustrious history. But, given just how painful the last few seasons have been for him, surely no-one can begrudge the man from Oviedo taking another step towards claiming a piece of racing history he can call his own.